A Double Life (二重生活 , Yoshiyuki Kishi, 2016)

double-lifeA Double Life (二重生活, Nijyuu Seikatsu ), the debut feature from director Yoshiyuki Kishi adapted from Mariko Koike’s novel, could easily be subtitled “a defence of stalking with indifference”. As a philosophical experiment in itself, it recasts us as the voyeur, watching her watching him, following our oblivious heroine as she becomes increasingly obsessed with the act of observance. Taking into account the constant watchfulness of modern society, A Double Life has some serious questions to ask not only of the nature of existence but of the increasing connectedness and its counterpart of isolation, the disconnect between the image and reality, and how much  the hidden facets of people’s lives define their essential personality.

Tama (Mugi Kadowaki) is an MA philosophy student working on a thesis regarding the nature of existence in contemporary Japan. Discussing her work with her supervisor, Shinohara (Lily Franky), Tama reveals that she was drawn to her subject because she is unable to understand why she herself is alive. Her proposal was largely based on the tried and tested method of a survey but Shinohara is hoping for something more original. Catching sight of a Sophie Calle book on his desk, he suggests that Tama’s project might benefit from examining the life of one subject in depth and so he tasks her with following a random person and observing their daily activities in order to figure out what makes them tick.

Tama is conflicted, but when she catches sight of her neighbour at a book shop she makes an impulsive decision to follow him which will later develop into an all consuming obsession. Ishizaka (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a successful editor at a high profile publishing house with a pretty wife, cute daughter and lovely home just over the way from the apartment Tama lives in with her illustrator and game designer boyfriend, Takuya (Masaki Suda). However, while following Ishizaka to a local coffee shop Tama catches him illicitly meeting another woman. Not quite believing what she sees, Tama’s obsession with her target continues to grow until the fateful day that her cover is finally blown.

Tama, and her supervisor, both regard the exercise as essentially harmless because all Tama is supposed to do is observe. The nature of her experiment means that she must remain unseen so that the subject does not change his or her behaviour but Tama quickly becomes a passive observer to an unpleasant domestic episode when Ishizaka’s wife discovers the affair. Tama is, always, a passive presence. As she says herself, she carries a deep-seated sense of emptiness that prevents her from fully connecting with other people. Her stalking activities, however, reawaken a sense of connectedness that she had been unable to find in her everyday life.

While Tama is watching Ishizaka, she herself is also being watched. Firstly, of course, by us, but also by the busybody landlady whose obsession with the proper way to dispose of rubbish has led to her installing spy cameras to capture the offending tenants on film. Of course, the cameras capture a lot of other stuff too which, when used alongside other forms of evidence, paint a slightly different picture. The old lady is a classic curtain twitcher, albeit one with access to more sophisticated equipment, and looms big brother-like over her tiny domain, the possessor and disseminator of all information. Tama’s rules mean she must not be seen, but someone is always watching, collecting information to be repurposed and repackaged at the convenience of the collector.

Cameras capture images but humans conjure pictures. From the outside, the Ishizakas are the perfect model family – a successful husband, warm and friendly housewife who is quick to get involved in community events, and a lovely, well behaved little daughter. As we find out Ishizaka is not the committed family man which he first seems. After treating all of the women in his life extremely badly, Ishizaka adds Tama to his list after the affair is exposed and his life ruined. Tama was only ever a passive observer whose presence had no effect on the narrative, yet Ishizaka blames his predicament on her rather than address the fact the situation is entirely his own fault. He does, however, have a point when he accuses Tama of exploiting his secrets for her own gain.

Tama’s observations are limited to the public realm and so she’s left with a lot of unknown data making her conclusions less than reliable. The gap between her perception and the reality becomes even more apparent once she begins observing the life of her supervisor, Shinohara. In an elliptical fashion, the film begins with Shinohara’s presumed suicide attempt and for much of the first half we seem him struggle with the grief of his mother’s terminal illness. This again turns out to be not quite as it seems, undermining Tama’s whole research proposal as her conclusions on Shinohara’s reason for living were based on a deliberately constructed scenario.

Ironically enough, Tama’s attempts to connect eventually ruin her own relationship as she finds herself living “a double life” as a vicarious voyeur. Abandoning her sense of self and living through her subjects, Tama begins to connect with the world around her but it’s more overlapping than a true union of souls in which she becomes a passive receptacle for someone else’s drama. Hers is the life of a double, shadowy and incomplete. Take away a man’s life lie and you take away his happiness, so Ibsen told us. Tama would seem to come a similar conclusion, that the essence of life may lie in these petty secrets and projected images. An intriguing philosophical text in itself, A Double Life is an intense look at modern society and all of its various artifices which marks Kishi out as a promising new cinematic voice.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Innocent15 (イノセント15, Hirokazu Kai, 2016)

innocent-15Innocence is a fairly nebulous concept and one often misused but if you were expecting an “innocent” tale of youthful romance, Hirokazu Kai’s Innocent15 (イノセント15) is out to wrong foot you from the get go. Kai does not shy away from the darker sides of human nature in examining abusive parenting and forced prostitution as well as the damage done when a secret is broken after long years of being unable to be honest about who you really are. This is a bleak tale, but one with with hope shining round the edges, even if uncertainly.

Narumi (Sara Ogawa) and Gin (Riku Hagiwara) are ordinary middle school students living in small town not far from the capital. When Narumi plucks up the courage to confess her love to her friend, she receives the kindest of brush offs but Gin is left confused. His two drop out friends who spend their days skateboarding around the neighbourhood can’t understand his decision to turn down such a pretty girl though they remember that he’s done the same thing before. Gin himself doesn’t quite know why, but even if he feels sorry for not returning Narumi’s feelings, he is unable to accept them.

Though Narumi may seem like the perfect high school girl – quiet, studious, and refined, if a little sad, her home life is anything but ordinary. Saddled with an aggressive woman child for a mother who demands Narumi abandon her homework to cook her dinner while she plays on her gameboy, Narumi keeps her head down and makes the best of things. After putting up with her mother’s regular beatings, she finally decides to leave when she learns that her mother has sold her virginity to her boyfriend for 100,000 yen.

Meanwhile, Gin’s life is turned upside-down when he learns his father is in love with another man. Already in a state of confusion about his own adolescent feelings, Gin is unable to comprehend this sudden bombshell and lashes out at all around him. Therefore when Narumi arrives and tells him she’s leaving for Tokyo to look for her father he immediately says he’ll come with her. However, their youthful ideas of going it alone in the big city are quickly dashed.

Gin’s problems are of a more immediate kind but Narumi has endured long term suffering at the hands of her abusive mother. When she belittles Narumi’s studying and remarks that she’s no need to go to high school because the world always needs more hookers, it seems like an instance of cruel sarcasm but it turns out she really is intent on prostituting her own daughter to her no good boyfriend.

When her mother’s boyfriend viciously attacks Gin, Narumi is left with nowhere else to go. The tragedy is that intense social pressures and her already existing isolation make it impossible for Narumi to confide in someone about the abuse she’s suffering at home. Being only 15, even if she were to simply walk out of her mother’s house she would have no way to support herself, leaving her with little choice between possible starvation on the streets and allowing her mother to sell her to her cruel and violent boyfriend.

Narumi’s “innocent” love for Gin becomes her last lifeline and his rejection a crushing end to her dreams of being saved. By contrast, Gin’s problems are much easier to solve. His resentment towards his father is more likely driven by the shock of the revelation rather than directly because he has fallen in love with another man. Gin may have temporarily rejected his father, but his father has not rejected him. Guilt and embarrassment over his actions aside, Gin is always welcome to return home where his father would welcome him with open arms. All of Gin’s problems are internal as he struggles with his adolescent confusion. All of Narumi’s problems are external – when Gin spots the scars and bruises on her shoulder, she tells him that she was able to put up with her mother’s cruelty because it only hurt her body and never touched her soul. Narumi’s interior is solid, but she’s trapped in a desperate situation from which there is no obvious way to escape.

Mirroring each other, Gin and Narumi try to run away from their problems but are each unable to escape. Kai opts for a series of reverses towards the film’s conclusion which offer hope only to dash it again and the final scene with only the sound of a motorbike’s flooded engine and eventual kickstart adds a note of anxious ambivalence in which there is a chance for the pair to ride away together but no further evidence that this attempt will be any more successful than the last. The general tone is one of gritty realism though Kai also admits the existence of life’s strange coincidence’s such as in the repeated appearance of a “weird lady” on a pink mobility scooter whose eccentric driving style has disastrous consequences. A necessarily bleak tale highlighting the plight of children in danger in their own homes and left with nowhere else to go coupled with a tentative, innocent teenage love story, Innocent15 is a tense, often horrifying experience filled with outrage but is careful to leave at least the possibility of a better way out, however far off it may be.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Tatsushi Omori, 2016)

seto-and-utsumiThere are two very distinct sides to the career of Tatsushi Omori. Brother of the well known actor, Nao, Omori may be best known to certain audiences for his hard hitting, often gloomy and pessimistic dramas of human misery such as festival favourite Ravine of Goodbye or the little seen The Whispering of the Gods which proved so controversial that his only option of screening the film involved erecting a tent where he could show it himself. However, a closer look at his filmography discovers a steady strain of laid-back comedy such as the Tada’s Do It All House series in which two brothers played by Eita and Ryuhei Matsuda act as bumbling handymen-cum-detectives-cum-whatever-you-need-them-to-be. It might be less surprising therefore that his latest effort is an adaptation of Kazuya Konomoto’s comedy manga Seto and Utsumi (セトウツミ, Setoutsumi) which revels in the everyday absurdity of teenage life in Southern Japan.

Seto (Masaki Suda) and Utsumi (Sosuke Ikematsu) are ordinary high school boys heading into their final year with the exam season and the end of their youthful, carefree days looming. Utsumi is a quiet, serious sort who generally doesn’t like a lot of company. Seto, by contrast, is a real live wire and not exactly a top student. Nevertheless, they found each other by a river one day and have been more or less inseparable ever since. Every day after school they meet and hang out in the same spot over looking the water where they shoot the breeze about various ordinary things from a non-argument over a girl to venus fly traps, Buddhist terminology, and ghosts.

Like many teenagers, Seto and Utsumi kill time doing nothing in particular and their conversations are generally inconsequential. Yet for all of their inherent randomness and absurdity, there’s a layer of poignancy underpinning each of them as the boys let slip various aspects of their private, interior lives. Seto’s big life drama involves the possible separation of his parents following the illness of the family cat which everyone in the family decided to indulge seeing as the poor thing didn’t have long left, but against expectation it’s two years later, the cat is still alive and Seto’s father is growing ever more resentful at spending so much money on luxury cat food. Seto’s family are a rowdy bunch, just as prone to drama as he is yet for all their complaining they seem fairly close – close enough for Seto to complain about the constant random text updates from his mother (a trait which Seto seems to have inherited himself).

Utsumi, by contrast, is much more aloof and keeps himself to himself. When Seto complains after his mother spots the boys at the river with bags full of shopping in her hands he remarks sadly that he rarely eats at home, implying it must be nice to have someone cook you a meal everyday. His approach to life is cerebral, calculating odds and planning angles, as he reveals to Seto in a piece of possibly not very helpful dating advice. Utsumi’s unseen parents are, presumably, just as aloof as he is, austere and religious. Nevertheless, in Seto he’s found a true sparring partner and someone he can waste time with amiably.

Utsumi’s parents are useful for one thing, they belong to the temple in which Seto’s crush, Kashimura (Ayami Nakajo), lives. Seto has been secretly trying to brush up on Buddhist terminology to impress her, but predictably she prefers the cool indifference of Utsumi to his friend’s energetic banter. Utsumi isn’t interested in Kashimura in any case, but not even this possible subject of conflict is big enough to seriously risk damaging the two boys’ friendship. As one character remarks towards the end of the film, it really is a once in a lifetime connection.

Omori keeps things simple, mostly sticking to static shots of the boys sitting on the steps near the river but he makes the stillness add to the sense of the absurd running through the quiet backwater town. After beginning with accordion music and ride through the canals, Seto and Utsumi’s first conversation takes place in front of an unintentional audience of a perfectly motionless older man, staring vacantly out at the river. The man turns out to have a valid (if sad) reason for being where he is, but the presence of the balloon animal vending clown from Eastern Europe (called Mr. Balloon) is a little harder to explain given that other than Seto, Utsumi, the aforementioned man, a high school bully, Seto’s mum, and a senile grandpa, no one else comes anywhere near this tranquil spot for the entire film. Using occasional dissolves and superimpositions to create a fleeting, dreamlike atmosphere with a handful of cutaways and flashbacks for comedic context, Seto and Utsumi is a truly charming ode to teenage friendship in all its pleasantly ridiculous absurdity.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

There are also a few bonus web episodes of Seto and Utsumi enjoying even more pointless conversations:

No. 1 – Kendama (a kind of Japanese cup and ball game) (English subtitles)

No. 2: Timing (English subtitles)

3. Standing Ovation (no subtitles but you don’t really need them)

Three (三人行, Johnnie To, 2016)

Johnnie To is best known as a purveyor of intricately plotted gangster thrillers in which tough guys outsmart and then later outshoot each other. However, To is a veritable Jack of all trades when it comes to genre and has tackled just about everything from action packed crime stories to frothy romantic comedies and even a musical. This time he’s back in world of the medical drama as an improbable farce develops driven by the three central cogs who precede to drive this particular crazy train all the way to its final destination.

Dr. Tong (Zhao Wei), is a tough as nails neurosurgeon. Having arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland at 17, she learned Cantonese, got into medical school and has built a fine career for herself but this same drive means she’s unwilling to delegate and constant overwork is beginning to eat into her statistics. She thinks her day can’t get much worse after an angry patient rants and calls her a quack because there has been a complication with his surgery and he’s currently unable to walk but her next patient, a man with a gunshot wound to the head brought in by the police, is about to add to her already long list of workplace stressors.

Shun (Wallace Chung) is actually almost OK except for having a bullet lodged in his brain. Against all the advice, Shun refuses the offer to have it removed surgically because he’s playing a long game with the police and it’s his one bargaining chip. The police’s story is that Shun grabbed a gun and tried to escape whereupon an officer shot him. However, this turns out to be not quite true and Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) has twin worries – finding Shun’s accomplices and covering up the extreme misconduct committed by his team members.

The original Chinese title of the film, 三人行 which means three people walking, is inspired by the traditional saying that among three people you will always find someone you can learn something from. However, the tragedy of these three is that they’re incapable of learning anything from anyone else and are actually quite disinterested in other people. Tong is always thinking of her targets and can’t bear the thought of losing again if Shun dies of his injuries, but rather than learning to step back and recharge, she continues to push herself to near breaking point. Chen is series of walking contradictions – a lawbreaking policeman, so certain of his own ability to counteract crime that he’s lost all accountability. Shun’s big personality flaw is taking far too much pleasure in his playful scams. He wants to make a phone call so he refuses surgery until he can (quoting Bertrand Russell and throwing the Hippocratic oath back at Tong, already nearing the boil), never quite realising that the delay could very well signal the end of everything.

Tong, Chen, and Shun are three pillars of society – the respectability of the medical profession, the authority of law enforcement, and the inevitability of crime. Tong, the most sympathetic, propels herself into overwork but her selfish need to prove herself to herself puts patients’ lives at risk. The police force which is supposed to represent protection under the law, is shown to be corrupt and little more than criminal in itself. Chen says he can break the law to enforce the law, but what he’s really trying to do is save his own skin after going too far. Shun is simply a sociopathic genius intent on showing off his cerebral prowess to anyone who will give him the slightest bit of attention but like all criminals he’s a goal orientated, short term thinker. Each of the three is, in a sense, moving in their own universe and driven only by their own certainty of primacy.

As much as Three is a crime thriller, psychological character piece, and medical drama, what lies at the heart of it is farce. In keeping with much of his work, To’s world is an absurd one filled with eccentric fringe characters who may be more important than they otherwise appear and, as usual, the final god is luck – a paralysed man attempts suicide by throwing himself down the stairs only to suddenly find he can stand up by himself at the bottom, and Chen’s gun jams several times preventing him from taking decisive action. At one very strange juncture, Shun even tries to escape the hospital by making use of the classic boys own adventure tactic of tying a number of sheets together and using them to climb out of the window. To’s true centrepiece takes the form of a tense, exciting shootout which looks like slow motion but was apparently filmed in real time with the actors moving slowly in perfectly choreographed formation. The improbable scene of carnage, prefaced by bombs going off right, left and centre, is conducted to a the strains of a genial pop song extolling Confucianist wisdom. Beautifully balletic, the bullets hit in real time but the actors react as if stunned, allowing us to fully experience all of their fear and confusion at the centre of such a shocking event.

The man who may have the most to teach us the genial old man with a key stealing habit who erupts into a bawdy song as he’s being discharged. He may have the right idea when he suggests that everyone follow his example and learn to laugh loudly to live a happy life. To reinforces his absurd intentions with intense realism, embracing the ritualistic, “theatrical” nature of the operating room with all of its various performances set atop the heated bloody scenes of bodily gore and coldly metallic nature of the surrounding equipment. To’s gleefully graceful aesthetic is back in force for this tale of lonely wandering planets pushed out of orbit by the imposing centrifugal forces of their rivals. Strange and tinged with absurd humour, Three is To is in a playful mood but nevertheless deadly serious.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)